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Kanye steps out in Confederate jacket
01:43 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Kanye West tells radio station that Confederate flag represents slavery, so "it's my flag now"

Experts say it's at least part publicity stunt, but there is potential for meaningful dialogue

Rapper Pastor Troy wonders if West grasps flag's symbolism, warns him, "Be careful, Kanye"

Professor: It's about freedom of expression; we can't ban symbols we dislike

CNN  — 

Kanye West and the Confederate battle flag. That’s the discussion.

It’s not about race relations or a relic’s true meaning. It’s not about whether a group can co-opt a pejorative of which they’ve historically been the butt and make it their own, much like the gay community did with “queer” or African-Americans did with the n-word.

No, the conversation is about West and that flag.

The rapper thrust himself into the spotlight, yet again, with news that several pieces of merchandise from his Yeezus tour are emblazoned with the controversial Southern Cross. At his tour store in Los Angeles, a replica of the flag is affixed to the wall with red tape and adorned with the words, “I ain’t coming down.”

Twitter exploded after word got out, and while West saw some support, including a fellow who called him a “pro-black genius,” others called him a disgrace. Read one tweet, “Ye - THATS STUPID! Brother I marched to have that vile rag torn down from the state house grounds.”

Asked to explain the rationale for including the controversial symbol on his clothing, West told AMP Radio, “The Confederate flag represented slavery in a way. That’s my abstract take on what I know about it, right? So I wrote the song, ‘New Slaves.’ So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It’s my flag now. Now what you gonna do?”

He added later in the interview, “It’s colorless also. It’s super-‘hood and super-white-boy-approved at the same time.”

Those aren’t the words of someone seeking to further dialogue, said hip-hop historian and San Francisco State adjunct professor Dave “Davey D” Cook. It sounds more like a man courting controversy, especially when you consider the source.

“Kanye doesn’t move by accident. There’s definitely a level of publicity involved in this,” Cook said, adding that while West “built his career around controversy,” no one should begrudge him selling anything that people are buying.

Green-lighting racism?

There are dangers, though, and Cook worries that West has missed an opportunity to educate people on the flag’s symbolism. There’s also the chance he could embolden those who fly the flag with ill will toward blacks.

“Kanye runs the risk of green-lighting something that is overtly racist, and I don’t think he has any plan in mind on how to educate people,” Cook said. “The opportunity to educate people on the symbolism of that flag and the racism attached to it is there.”

Not everyone is holding West to such a standard.

“He is an entertainer, for God’s sake. Surprise, surprise. Of course, it’s part of a publicity thing,” said Harvard University law professor Randall Kennedy, adding that that doesn’t preclude it from being useful, interesting or justifiable.

Kennedy, whose half dozen books on race include “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” said there are parallels between groups co-opting epithets and West co-opting the flag, “But listen, n—-r is still a term of abuse used to terrify people and hurt people.”

There are both positive and negative potential upshots to West’s campaign, Kennedy said. If it lessens someone’s anxiety about seeing the flag or diminishes the symbol’s “power to intimidate,” it’s a win, but if people forget what the flag stood for or become too ignorant about its meaning to counter claims that it’s merely a symbol of state’s rights, there could be detriment.

“Here were people who were willing to fight and die in order to enslave people, and that shouldn’t be forgotten,” Kennedy said.

Cook said that if West wanted to meaningfully take on a hot-button social issue, there are more effective ways of doing it.

He pointed to numerous examples in hip-hop: Talib Kweli has been outspoken on New York’s stop-and-frisk policy and Florida’s “stand your ground” law; Rhymefest and Immortal Technique visited Alabama in protest of the state’s immigration law; and several rappers have penned thoughtful lyrics admonishing the prison-industrial complex.

“It’d be nice if Kanye was doing town halls while he was on tour,” Cook said. “He’s in a position to do that. I’m not sure if he really realizes it or wanted to go in that direction.”

Not a trailblazer

Whatever West’s true intention, it’s worth noting, as Kennedy pointed out, that West isn’t the first person to do this. About a decade ago, a Charleston, South Carolina, clothing company called Nu South featured designs with the Southern Cross in red, black and green, the colors of the Pan-African flag.

Several rappers have also used the flag, including Ludacris, David Banner, Pastor Troy, LIl Jon and OutKast, though Cook is quick to point out, “They’re not selling a flag. They were wearing it, so there’s a difference.”

Pastor Troy wonders if West, who was born in Atlanta but grew up in Chicago and is about to move into a Bel Air mansion with fiance Kim Kardashian, understands how powerful the symbol is in the South.

Driving through South Georgia during a phone interview, the Atlanta rapper, whose real name is Micah LeVar Troy, said he had just been passed by a swamp boat, the entire hull of which bore the Confederate flag, and he would remind West to be careful disrespecting things that others find sacred.

“Now, these are the ones Kanye needs to be worried about. Kanye ain’t waving that flag in front of them,” he said. “Be careful, Kanye.”

Not that Troy hasn’t used the flag on album covers and in videos, but “I wasn’t lifting it up to glorify it,” he said, explaining he knew the ramifications of using the banner. To Troy, the flag stood for rebellion, and he was being rebellious himself in flaunting it.

“I was letting them know it was a new day down here in the South, from then to now. Whoever would’ve thought a black man could touch that flag without getting killed?” he said.